Here’s another chestnut: Life is what you make it.
But what is life, exactly?
Is life what we think?
Or more in line with how we seem to live our lives today, is life what we do—whether that means building castles in the sand or building them in the sky…
Or is life the stuff we own, show, and store up? And does that definition imply by extension, for example, that if clothes—including those saggy-baggy pants still so popular with teenage boys—make the man, then we are what we wear. (Which makes me—sigh—a pair of plus-size mom jeans.)
Other clichés about life aver more darkly that the only things we can depend upon are death and taxes—or that the only thing we possess in life is our choices. But because ”like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives,” most everyone seems to acknowledge and agree that life is fleeting and unpredictable, so carpe diem, dude.
As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever written more memorably on life as shifting sand than Percy Bysshe Shelley in “Ozymandias.” This poem relates a traveler’s encounter with the ruins of a statue of Pharaoh Rameses II (reigned 1279-1213 BCE), once fifty-seven feet tall, in the desert:
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I remember my first encounter with Ozymandias in high school English. Even then, amidst the thick boredom and confusion surrounding the students’ general reception of all poetic texts, rose a collective and chilling thrum of prescient awareness of this hard truth about our mortality.
Whatever permission we teenagers gave ourselves at the time to carpe diem in consequence of this reading—life’s too short to do homework, man—I don’t recall. To this day, whenever good old Ozy comes to mind it makes me wonder if such mortal knowledge is not part of the unending draw of a bucket, shovel, and bearable stretch of sand along life’s unfathomable and infinitely coursing sea.
Shelley, as it turns out, did not get much time on Earth to figure out and share the mystery and meaning of human life. In its pithy biography of the poet, The Poetry Foundation relates that Shelley, who “called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’…drowned while sailing at age 29.” In that short time, however, he “produced gorgeous lyrical poetry quintessential of the Romantic Era.”
So no answers—but what a beautiful record of the effort to record and comprehend!
Life is what you make it: castle and sand are one.